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The Capture of Tehran, 1983


Part 7

By Chris Oakley



Summary: In the previous six chapters of this series we recalled the circumstances that led to the formation of the Iraqi-led Arab coalition that which to war with Iran in 1980; the course of the Iran-Iraq War itself; the assassination of Ayatollah Khomeini near the end of the war; the Arab capture of Tehran that sealed the fall of Iran’s Islamic regime and the Arab coalition’s final victory; the political disputes which divided the Arab coalition in the postwar era; the beginning of the breakdown of US-Iraqi diplomatic relations; the creation of the CIA’s Iraq Study Group; the Arab coalition occupation authorities’ efforts to assemble a postwar Iranian government; the Qom massacre of 1986 and its role in the subsequent termination of US diplomatic relations with the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq; and the USS Stark incident of 1987. In this installment we’ll review how the attack on the Stark and the Reagan Administration’s response to it hastened the eventual outbreak of war between the United States and Iraq, as well as the impact of the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe on Iraqi diplomatic and military policy in the weeks and months immediately preceding the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.


Saddam Hussein never forgave Ronald Reagan for terminating U.S. relations with Iraq-- or for the executive order which gave U.S. air and naval commanders in the Persian Gulf greater latitude in dealing with a potential Iraqi threat to their security. In a televised speech three days after Reagan’s executive order was signed, the Iraqi tyrant labeled the US president "a deceitful Zionist puppet"1 and promised to wage all-out war against the United States if Iraqi forces were fired upon. That was the beginning of a rather high-stakes game of chicken which would climax in the summer of 1990 with Iraq’s attempt to occupy Kuwait and the massive US-sponsored multi-national military campaign against Baghdad in response to that attempt.

Until then, however, Washington and Baghdad would oppose each other chiefly by diplomatic and political means, waging a miniature version of the global cold war between the West and the Communist bloc which was then nearing its end. That end, as it turned out, was to have far-reaching consequences for the Baathist regime’s efforts to maintain Iraq’s position as the pre-eminent regional power in the Gulf. Although few people suspected it at the time the Soviet Union, which for years had been Iraq’s chief foreign ally, was on its last legs; the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Red Army’s failure to crush the Afghan resistance movement revealed massive and ever-growing cracks in the foundations of Soviet power. Moscow was no longer able to play sugar daddy for its Middle Eastern client states-- at least not to the extent that it had done so during the Khruschev-Brezhnev era. Indeed, the Soviet government could barely manage to fulfill the needs of its own armed forces, much less restock the cupboards of the Iraqi military.

Consequently, Saddam Hussein sought to compensate for this by cutting arms deals with France and China. Both countries had lucrative arms industries, and both were eager to improve their relations with Baghdad. France in particular hoped that selling arms to the Iraqi  government would in turn enable French petroleum companies to expand their share of Iraq’s oil market; ergo, it was just a matter of time before Paris and Baghdad reached arms and trade accords, the first of which was signed by the French and Iraqi governments in August of 1987 amid sharp protests from Britain, the United States, and Israel.

In the Persian Gulf War, many of the weapons used by the Iraqi armed forces against the US would be of French manufacture-- a fact which cast a serious pall over US-French relations in the first few years after the Gulf War ended. Some American conservatives, in fact, would be so incensed by the French arms sales agreements with Iraq that they would advocate hitting France with massive trade tariffs to punish the Chirac government for making these pacts with Baghdad.2 Though no such tariffs were ever instituted, relations between Paris and Washington did cool off considerably in the first few months after the first Iraqi-French arms deal was concluded.


By the spring of 1988 a fragile patchwork government had finally been put in place in Iran-- no thanks to any Iraq’s former coalition partners. In most quarters the new regime, headed by a onetime field commander from the anti-Khomeini Iranian exile militia, was viewed as essentially a puppet regime; to be sure, the new government did share much of Saddam’s ideology. And yet on many foreign policy matters it went its own way more than once, a fact which annoyed Baghdad to no small degree. But this was a decidedly secondary priority for Saddam and his cronies in the Revolutionary Command Council-- the main item on their agenda was confronting Kuwait, whose dispute with Iraq over the redistribution of confiscated Khomeini-era Iranian oil industry profits was growing more bitter every day.

The emirs who ruled Kuwait were also worried that the Saddam dictatorship in Baghdad might be considering an armed attempt to place Kuwaiti territory under Iraq’s control. The Iraqis only had one natural seaport, Umm Qasr, and Kuwait’s coastline was invitingly situated along many of the Persian Gulf’s most important shipping lanes; this made it a natural target for the Baathist regime’s expansionist designs. Furthermore, Iraq and Kuwait had both once been part of the Ottoman Empire and there were many Iraqis-- Saddam himself being one of them --who considered Kuwait a "lost province" of Iraq that needed to be recovered one way or another. In the fall of 1989, while the rest of the world was marveling at the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the return of political freedom to eastern Europe after almost 45 years of Communist rule, the Iraqi general staff was quietly beginning preparations to settle the feud between Baghdad and Kuwait City by force of arms.

Reagan’s former vice-president and successor as commander-in-chief, George H.W. Bush, had beaten Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign partly on the strength of his commitment to continue what Reagan had started in enhancing America’s defense capabilities and its ability to meet its security commitments abroad. So when the CIA first tipped him off to Iraq’s intentions regarding Kuwait, Bush was not going to simply sit back and let Saddam have his way. In his first presidential comment on the Kuwait situation, he stated point-blank that if Iraq showed the slightest sign of moving to occupy Kuwait by force his administration would use every military means at its disposal to defend the small desert kingdom-- and to make doubly sure Saddam got the point, Bush dispatched two Los Angeles-class nuclear submarines to the Persian Gulf in January of 1990 on what was officially designated a training mission and unofficially intended as a reminder of the destructive power America could bring to bear.

Strictly speaking, nuclear weapons weren’t necessary to subdue Baathist Iraq. But since the Truman Administration US presidents have customarily kept the nuclear option on the table as insurance in the event conventional military forces are unable to fulfill American strategic needs in wartime. And even when only using conventionally armed missiles, the Los Angeles-class subs could still provide a most effective means of striking at the Iraqis; besides being capable of launching their missiles from distances well out of range of what passed for Iraqi naval defenses, these submarines could stay on patrol for months or even years if necessary thanks to their nuclear-powered reactor drives.

Next to these subs, the most effective naval delivery platforms for the ground attack version of the Tomahawk3 were the Iowa-class battleships which the Pentagon had retrieved from mothballs in the late 1980s to give the US Navy added offshore firepower in future conflicts. Though slow as Galapagos tortoises in comparison to the new generation of warships coming into service at the time the USSR collapsed, they could boast substantial operational ranges along with the ability to endure considerable damage from enemy fire. 4

American guided missile cruisers like the Virginia and the Ticonderoga were equipped with the RGM-84 Harpoon, a radar-guided anti-ship surface-to-surface weapon, as a defense against possible Iraqi naval attack; generally regarded at that time as the world’s world’s most effective surface-to-surface anti-ship missile, the Harpoon could cripple or even destroy an enemy vessel when used right. If the shipboard-mounted version wasn’t enough to put the fear of God in an Iraqi sailor, there was an equally lethal air-to-surface variant designated AGM-84 which could be fired from fixed-wing aircraft against targets at sea-- and given that the US Navy had at least three aircraft carriers attached to the Desert Storm naval element, there would be plenty of opportunity for American carrier pilots to try their luck at picking off Iraqi navy or merchant marine vessels.


Another highly efficient missile delivery platform was the US Air Force bomber fleet. The venerable B-52, the more recent B-1, and the newly minted B-2 Stealth all had the capacity to launch cruise missiles into Iraq-- and the ability to do so from distances well out of range of Iraqi air defense fighters or SAM batteries. Much of the Pentagon’s battle plan for fighting Saddam, appropriately designated Operation Desert Storm, involved using these bombers to take out so-called C3(command/control/communications) facilities inside Baghdad at the start of hostilities. For tactical air strikes, carrier-based F/A-18s and F-16s, F-15s, and F-117s flown from airbases elsewhere in the Persian Gulf would hit Iraqi troop convoys and armored vehicles. The US Army’s attack helicopter inventory would have its own sizable role to play, knocking out whatever tanks or APCs the jets had missed on their first go-around and suppressing SAM batteries and artillery emplacements.

On the ground, a multinational troop contingent was being quietly assembled in Saudi Arabia to intervene in the Kuwaitis’ defense should the threat of a shooting war over Kuwait become a reality. The United States, naturally, contributed the largest number of soldiers to this combat force; Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Egypt, Indonesia, and host country Saudi Arabia were also generously represented. In fact, at least twenty-eight nations would directly participate in Operation Desert Storm: there was even a modest detachment of military engineers from South Korea included in the order of battle.

Heading up the ground forces was US Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., a Vietnam veteran and the son of a former New Jersey State Police superintendent. "Stormin’ Norman", as he was known by his peers, had studied Iraqi combat tactics from the Iran-Iraq war and was looking to integrate the lessons of that conflict with his own Vietnam experiences in order to fashion an effective battle plan for stopping any Iraqi moves against Kuwait. He also took a page from the playbook of the generals who mapped out the D-Day invasion; knowing the Iraqi army high command would be expecting the coalition ground forces to mount an amphibious landing somewhere on the Kuwaiti coastline, he had his intelligence staff devise a campaign of misinformation to encourage Baghdad to go on believing this false idea-- unaware that if and when war actually broke out in the Persian Gulf the real main thrust of Allied land operations against Iraq would come over the Saudi-Iraqi frontier in a lightning sweep intended to cut Iraqi forces in Kuwait off at the knees and isolate them until they could no longer put up a fight.

Meanwhile, events happening far from the Persian Gulf would turn out to have a far-reaching impact on the Iraqi military’s capacity to wage war. In November of 1989 the Berlin Wall, the most conspicuous symbol of the Cold War divide between East and West, was finally taken down, paving the way for the reunification of Germany the following year; with the loss of the old East German government, which long been an important ally of Saddam’s regime, the Iraqi government would find it increasingly difficult-- and then impossible --to obtain Warsaw Pact-built weaponry. In fact, by the time the Persian Gulf War began in earnest the Warsaw Pact itself had ceased to exist altogether.

Consequently, Saddam would have to rely more than ever on the Chinese and the French for foreign weapons aid; while French weapons sales to Iraq would be halted once the Gulf War began, those sales would nonetheless complicate France’s diplomatic relations with the United States, with Israel, and with its NATO partners in Europe. As for China, it would continue to do business with the Baathist regime right up until that regime collapsed at the end of the Gulf War-- in fact, China was the only major world power other than Russia not to commit any combat forces to Operation Desert Storm.

By the spring of 1990 it was clear an armed showdown between Washington and Baghdad couldn’t be avoided much longer-- and just in case there was still anyone out there who questioned whether the United States was ready or willing to take Saddam on in his own backyard, veteran US diplomat April Glaspie silenced those doubts with a stern letter to the Iraqi interests section at the Swedish embassy in Washington during the second week of May. In that sharp missive, Glaspie explicitly warned: "Any attempt of the part of Iraq to occupy Kuwaiti territory will be immediately and strongly resisted by US and allied military forces in the Persian Gulf."5


To Be Continued...


[1] From an official Iraqi foreign ministry press release dated April 7th, 1987.

[2] And that was the mildest reaction to the Iraqi-French arms pacts; there were a few on the American far right who actually wanted the United States to go to war with the French to stop those pacts from being fulfilled. Some readers may recall a certain bumper sticker bearing the words “First Baghdad, Then Paris” that came out immediately after the Persian Gulf War began.

[3] There were three different versions of the Tomahawk in active service with the US military just prior to the start of the Persian Gulf War; one such variant, a nuclear-tipped strategic attack weapon, was in the process of being phased out when the war began and would be gone from the US arsenal altogether within eighteen months after the war ended.

[4] An ability which, it should be noted, the Iraqis did next to nothing to test.

[5] “US State Department Rattles Sabers At Iraq As Gulf Crisis Continues To Escalate”, New York Times, May 10th, 1990.


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